A character in Little, Big is the “greatest mage of this age of the world,” a common personage in fantasy novels. Crowley cleverly makes her master of a single form of magic, one that is in fact real, the Art of Memory. Like Giordano Bruno and other masters of the art, now “for the most part rendered obsolete by the invention of the filing-cabinet,” the wizard creates a place, a memory palace, which she furnishes with everything: “her dog Spark, a trip to Rockaway, her first kiss.” How is this skill magical rather than merely impossible?
It was discovered, for instance, that the symbolic figures with vivid expressions, once installed in their proper places, are subject to subtle change as they stand waiting to be called forth. The ravished nun who meant Sacrilege might, when one passes her again, have acquired a depraved air about the mouth and eyes one hadn’t thought he had bestowed on her… Also: as a memory house grows, it makes conjunctions and vistas that its builder can’t conceive of beforehand… that new gallery might also turn out to be a shortcut to the ice-house where he had out a distant winter once and then forgot. (Book 3, Ch. IV, “The Art of Memory,” ellipses mine)
Crowley is describing his own novel, in fact all novels and literature, and in a sense the history of literature, since the builders it turns out do not all have to be the same person. But he is specifically describing his own novel, first in that much of it takes place in a house that functions as described here, and second because this is his method: do not just create but accrete, which is itself a form of creation. Little, Big is a Joseph Cornell box of a novel.
Crowley uses tarot cards similarly, with the entire novel, every plot and subplot, implicit in the deck of cards. “As in Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies I wanted to create a situation where it was impossible to know whether the cards were bringing about, prophesying, or summing up the story” (the Perpetual Crowley Interview). Calvino’s book (1969 / 1973) lays out the entire deck of cards in a sort of crossword puzzle and then tells stories using every row and column, backwards and forwards, discovering or creating the stories of Faust, Parsifal, Roland, and Hamlet within the cards.
I began by trying to line up tarots at random, to see if I could read a story in them. “The Waverer’s Tale” emerged; I started writing it down; I looked for other combinations of the same cards; I realized the tarots were a machine for constructing stories; I thought of a book, and I imagined its frame: the mute narrators, the forest, the inn; I was tempted by the diabolical idea of conjuring up all the stories that could be contained in a tarot deck. (p. 126, tr. William Weaver)
The good joke here is that all possible stories are contained in the tarot deck, given the free application of the imagination by the storyteller, and if somehow a limit is reached, the writer can always switch to another deck, which Calvino does – the book actually has two parts, the Castle and the Tavern, each using a different deck (the Tavern is pictured above, the scan borrowed from a writer interested in the book's architecture). Crowley creates his own imaginary deck.
When I first read The Castle of Crossed Destinies many years ago, I placed it among Calvino’s most minor works. That was not correct.